I never got a chance to meet the legendary Judge Harry Pregerson, who served over fifty years on the Ninth Circuit federal court in California (stepping down at age 92) and died last month at age 94. When I got word of his Dec 1 memorial at the Shrine, I decided to make Harry’s posthumous acquaintance. I parked, passed through a security check, settled into one of the back rows of that vast hall, listened to the musical preamble of dirges performed on-stage by the Salvation Army brass band.
The seats were filled with people who loved Harry, were related to Harry, had worked with Harry, had been helped by Harry or mentored by Harry, or all of the above. Harry’s signature cowboy hat placed on the podium bore witness to their heartfelt stories over the next two hours, stories that created a vivid portrait of this tough, tenacious, cantankerous, loveable man.
Harry Pregerson, son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, raised in a free-thinking home in diverse Boyle Heights. At 21, a Marine lieutenant on Okinawa, he sustained serious wounds in both thighs. He was rescued from the battlefield by two Marines, surnamed Martinez, Mexican-American cousins, compadres from Boyle Heights. “Leave no one behind,”—the Marine code of honor became Harry’s life-long mantra. Just a week before he died, he told his wife, “…the hardest thing is that I don’t have strength anymore to help people.”
Judge Harry had been the sentencing judge in several trials of draft resisters during the Vietnam era. One activist, Bob Zaugh explained to me how Judge Pegerson was known for visiting ALL the people he sent to prison and when… “on a visit at Lompoc to visit a bank robber, he inquired who else was on the manifest. The judge learned that one of the resisters he’d sentenced—Michael Schwartz– was in solitary confinement for non-compliance. Schwartz had also been on a hunger strike. Judge Pregerson was so disturbed to learn that resisters were being sent to this type of prison. When he got back to Los Angeles, he drafted papers to change the sentences to time served.” After that visit, he decided he could no longer send resisters to prison.
When asked once what guided his decisions, Judge Pregerson explained: “My conscience is a product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath and the Marine Corps Hymn. If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience.”
Another judge, a former Marine, stepped up to the podium and described Harry Pregerson as “a man with no guile. Either you were a guy you hit the beach with, or just no damn good.” A former law clerk, now a judge, described how Harry frequently hired women as his clerks—unusual at the time—and, if one of them became pregnant, Harry would say: “That’s fine; we’ll just put a crib in the chambers.” City Attorney Michael Feuer described him as “…a force of nature. He was on a mission. No one could say no to Harry Pregerson. ‘Ok ok maybe the Supreme Court, once in awhile.’”
Harry’s moxie could move mountains, jump-start homeless shelters. During a particularly cold winter in LA in the mid-eighties, with people sleeping on the streets, Harry sent his law clerks to research a little used federal statute which he then used to commandeer an empty federal warehouse in Bell (built to house supplies for troops of the Pacific Theater in WWII) as a temporary shelter for the homeless.
The Bell Shelter, administered by the Salvation Army, is now one of the largest homeless shelters in the nation, providing over 1500 meals a day, to 500 former Skid Row residents, and offering job training as well. As Lt. Col Doug Riley of the Salvation Army testified at the memorial: “Harry made it happen.”
Pregerson established numerous other homeless shelters, including the Salvation Army’s Haven Program on the V.A. West Los Angeles campus which offers services for veterans with PTSD, job and addiction counseling. “Lemme tell you,” Harry remarked on one of his frequent visits there, “the finest people in the world live in these shelters.” The list of good works is astonishing: among them, the modernization of the Hyperion Treatment Plant, which revitalized marine life in the Santa Monica Bay; creating affordable housing and child care programs for those displaced by the 105 Century Freeway.
When Harry called, people answered, even in the middle of the night. When you shook Harry’s hand, his grandson Bradley recounted, it meant you were being swept up into the good fight, “joining Grandpa’s army, brought in with a Kung-Fu grip.” No one was ever a stranger to Harry, his daughter Katy told us because, “you never knew who a stranger could be… someone to help… or someone who could be a resource.” He also once told her, “Happiness is bullshit.” Real satisfaction came from service to others.
At the end of the almost two hour memorial, a lone bugler from the Salvation Army Band stood stage right and played TAPS. The notes were sweet and clear. I let the cleansing tears run freely for the sheer goodness of the man. I came alone, but I didn’t feel like a stranger. I will store the stories I heard about Harry Pregerson on the solar grid of my psyche for those dark hours ahead when the discouraging news– the meanness of those in positions of power– drain me of hope and energy.
Mayor Garcetti told the crowd that Harry Pregerson was “the greatest angel the City of Angels has ever known.” On this Hanukah night when we celebrate miracles, I raise a toast to the miracle of Harry Pregerson’s life and work. Of blessed memory.
(thanks for photo: Jason Doiy)